My last race got me thinking about all of the things that I’ve learned about running ultras. Actually, it got me thinking about all the things I’ve painfully learned over the years, forgotten, and then had to painfully relearn again.

  • Don’t decide to drop between aid stations. Whatever is bothering you can typically be fixed or mitigated by the helpful volunteers.
  • Don’t think past the next aid station. Thirty five more miles will seem like an eternity, but you can usually walk another 5 miles.
  • It doesn’t always get worse. And if it does, telling yourself it doesn’t can help a little.
  • Walk the hills. And the definition of hills becomes looser and looser the longer you go.
  • Also, it’s OK to walk the flats and downhills, too. No one cares what your average pace is. Finishing is the only important thing.
  • Respect the distance. It doesn’t matter how many ultras you’ve done; 50K, 50M, 100K, and 100M are all hard.
  • If it’s hot out, make sure to grab extra water from the aid station. The suck can be severe when you run dry 30 minutes from the next aid station.
  • If it’s cold out, add an extra layer. Especially at night. In no universe has anyone ever been too hot at 3am in 40 degree temps.
  • Blisters are painful, but after a while the pain will recede into the background. Until they pop. Then you’re in for a world of hurt for about 2 miles. But only 2 miles.
  • What works for you nutritionally will change as the years pass. Starting out I could stomach (pun intended) a gel every 3 miles for over a day, while now I’m lucky to choke 3 down. Liquid calories (Coke for the win!) have always worked very well for me and reduce the need for toilet paper later in longer ultras.
  • Trekking poles are miracle sticks and should be used on all mountainous courses. I find the benefit more from saving effort balancing myself through technical sections and braking on descents than climbing hills.
  • Your pace during the night will be directly proportional to how bright your headlamp is. You typically won’t notice how dim your light has gotten until you swap out batteries. Then it’s off to the races!
  • It’s impossible to go out too slow in an ultra. In 30+ ultras, it’s never happened for me. And several of them I swore I was going too slowly. If you’re not going frustratingly slow at the start, you are definitely moving too fast.
  • Music can be enjoyable, but isn’t necessary. It seems like most of the time in races, I don’t even notice I’m listening to my tunes I’m so engrossed with moving down the trails.
  • You can deal with at most 2 problems simultaneously during races so it’s important to get on top of them as quickly as possible.
  • Looped courses make logistics easier, but also make it much easier to quit.
  • Don’t set distance goals during timed events as you’ll stop prematurely when you reach them. These races are all about going to the upper reaches of your possible.
  • Spend as little time as possible in aid stations during the day, but take as much time as you need once the sun goes down.
  • You don’t need high mileage training weeks to run ultras. Forty miles a week on average is more than enough to put you in the middle of the pack.
  • I got this.

Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned though is that I can accomplish goals without being told how to do them. Running ultras are incredibly difficult and while there’s guidelines available to help you succeed (i.e. the above list), there is no perfect, straightforward path to getting you to the finish line. It’s trial and error from start to finish. I think it’s this individual variability that makes these races so challenging, which in turn make them so rewarding. I end up learning at least a little something from each of them.

Or relearning them as the case may be.

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